TORONTO – Canadian author Alan Bradley has lots to celebrate these days: the fifth novel in his Flavia de Luce series hits bookstores Saturday and the exploits of the 11-year-old super-sleuth are to be brought to life on the small screen by someone whose work he greatly admires.
“It’s incredible, it’s almost unbelievable,” says Bradley of the planned TV series by British director-producer Sam Mendes, whose film credits include “Skyfall” and “American Beauty.”
Selling the filming rights to the Flavia books — including his newly released “Speaking From Among the Bones” — was an idea Bradley had long resisted.
“I didn’t think it was a particularly good idea, unless it happened to be the right person and it were done in the right way. I think I had felt that a British-produced television series was probably the only way to go. I’ve never seen it as a Hollywood movie.”
It’s not surprising that Bradley is somewhat possessive of his spunky, precocious heroine, who despite her age is a dab hand at solving murders, the grislier the better.
Initially he told film agents he wasn’t interested in seeing Flavia, who lives with her family in a run-down mansion in a post-Second World War English village, jumping from the page onto the screen.
“Finally I told them if they wanted to entertain offers, they were free to do it, but don’t tell me,” the Cobourg, Ont.-raised Bradley says from his home on the Isle of Man off the coast of England, where he and his wife recently moved.
“It would be too head-turning unless precisely the absolutely right thing came along, which I doubted would even happen.”
But when a New York agent mentioned that Mendes was a huge fan of the novels and wanted to turn them into a 10-episode television series, Bradley said he recognized that the respected film-TV-theatre director was probably the one person in the world who should bring Flavia to the screen.
“I’m very positive about it, very confident about it and absolutely delighted that’s who wound up having the rights to make the series,” he says, explaining that he has met with Mendes and will have some input into the scripts and probably which actress is cast as the dogged little private eye.
Does he have a favourite for the role?
“I don’t have the faintest idea, really,” he says, but points out there are “a huge number of very accomplished young actresses in the U.K.”
No doubt, the part of the braided, bicycle-riding snoop will be eagerly sought after.
But whomever ends up personifying Flavia will have to be comfortable handling glass beakers, a microscope and Bunsen burner, the tools employed by the chemistry-loving crime-solver.
Chemical formulas — especially those for concocting poisons, for which she has a passion — play a key role in Flavia’s detecting abilities, even though Bradley had no experience with them until he began penning his first novel in the series, “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,” early in 2007.
“I fooled you, did I?” laughs Bradley, who admits he knew less than zero about the wonders of chemistry until Flavia landed in his life.
An electronic engineer by trade, Bradley worked at radio and TV stations across Ontario and at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University) before settling at the University of Saskatchewan, where he was director of television engineering for about 25 years.
It was when he was trying to write a long-dreamed-of detective novel after taking early retirement and moving to Kelowna, B.C., that Flavia suddenly materialized on the page before him and wouldn’t be denied, recalls Bradley, who switched writing gears to develop her story.
“Once the elephant puts its head into the tent, you might as well move out,” he says. “She wanted her own book.”
What this mystery character came with was a flare for chemical conjuring, so Bradley dove into old textbooks to bone up on formulas.
“I was really happy … because it was something that I knew nothing about whatsoever, so I was able to start right from the beginning and start all over fresh learning these things with Flavia, and have maybe as much gee-whiz enthusiasm as she had in doing the research.”
It’s that wide-eyed exuberance that has made readers fall in love with Flavia — the books are now published in 37 countries — and made Bradley a household name.
But how can a man, and one of his age — he’s now 74 — inhabit the mind of an 11-year-old girl and pull it off with such authenticity?
“I don’t know. I think all 11-year-olds are much the same,” says the father of two grown sons. “It’s a really special age. And I do remember being an 11-year-old boy, and that was about 1950,” the time period when the novels are set.
Still, Bradley insists he and Flavia are not interchangeable.
“She’s a very, very different person than I am and was. She’s much more precocious than I ever was and she’s much more fearless and she’s certainly a lot more intelligent and more brave,” he says. “At that age, I was probably a shy, withdrawn boy who was always wandering around with his nose in a book.”
What Bradley does share with his pint-sized protagonist is the enthusiasm that comes with being that age — “the sense of being absolutely able to do anything.
“Eleven is the age when you build a glider out of bed sheets and launch yourself from the roof and into the garden, and it never occurs to you that you could kill yourself,” he says, chuckling.
“And occasionally you hope that there is someone who glides out across the garden and up into the sky and maybe is never seen again,” says Bradley, who clearly enjoys a sense of whimsey.
Whether flying off the roof of her beloved ancestral abode, Buckshaw, is in Flavia’s future, only Bradley knows.
He is working on the sixth and final book in the original story arc he conceived, which is slated for release in February 2014. He has already picked the title: “The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.”
That book will continue and complete the story line in “Speaking From Among the Bones,” which closes with an unexpected twist.
Its cliff-hanger ending likely will have readers turning over all kinds of possibilities in their minds, a la Flavia de Luce, and anxious for Bradley’s resolution in the novel that completes the cycle.
But aficionados of the girl gumshoe need not despair that her adventures are soon coming to an end. There will be at least four more novels to fulfil the TV series quota. And after that, who knows?
By the end of the sixth book, Flavia will be turning 12, as the books cover a period of one year. Yet Bradley isn’t sure how much more she will age as subsequent novels unfold.
“I’m reluctant to push her into being a teenager because she would not be the same person,” he says.
As a loner of 11, she is able to poke her nose into others’ comings and goings and pry out information because most adults view her as a mere child — often to their peril.
“There’s no decision about how old Flavia might get. At one time I talked to several of my editors about having Flavia at 70 looking back, and everybody thinks that’s a good idea.
“But not just yet,” Bradley says emphatically.
“She still has quite a bit to do.”